Supporters of the body-positivity movement say that it’s all about loving your body no matter what, while detractors argue that it encourages an unhealthy lifestyle. Personally, at the height of the movement, I was practicing self-love and didn’t have any desire to change my eating habits—until it became something of a medical necessity.
I grew up in a big Portuguese family that encouraged me to eat as much food as possible, then shamed me for being chubby. It was hard to be satisfied with my figure; I was a competitive cheerleader for 12 years, and it was all too easy for me to compare my body to my teammates’. I analyzed their stomachs, arms, and legs, comparing their shapes to mine.
Dressing rooms became a nightmare. The word “flattering” quickly became one of my least favorite in the English language; according to my petite mother, that word never described a thing I wore. When I was 16, my uncle poked my stomach—the body part I’ve struggled with the most—and said, “You’ve gotta lose weight.”
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I didn’t. After high school, I moved to New York, where I ate whatever I wanted. Coupled with depression, this resulted in a 40-pound weight gain. But in 2014, the body-positivity movement was just beginning to pick up speed, as plus-size model Ashley Graham came into the spotlight—finally, curvy girls who looked like me were on the covers of magazines, normalizing size 14s in the media, which is what I was.
And then, it happened.
“Yep, you have jaundice,” my doctor told me. At 20, I stood in her office, my head bent over, while she examined the back of my neck. Jaundice is an indication of how your liver is functioning, and it could be a warning that, if unnoticed or ignored, might lead to a pre-diabetic condition.
She said it was good that she caught it before I went from pre-prediabetic to prediabetic. But at 5’2” and 180 pounds, I was medically obese and had to change my diet and exercise routine—in other words, it was time to finally lay off the intensely good pork lo mein from the Chinese place below my apartment.
There were other problems too: As I’d gained weight, my asthma worsened, and my allergist said that running would help improve my ability to breathe. A herniated disc in my lower back from my cheerleading years shot pain down my hip and leg, which my spine doctor said could be helped by losing weight and exercising.
It was taboo for me to say I wanted to lose weight, even if it was for health reasons.
OK, I thought. I can drop the pounds, improve my breathing, and heal my back—all by running. Since I was already planning to move back in with my parents in New Jersey, I traded the Chinese restaurant under my apartment for a treadmill in the basement, directly under my bedroom.
At my allergist’s suggestion, I downloaded an app called C25K that helped me train for a 5K I’d signed up for. I ran almost every day, and if I didn’t run, I’d go to hot yoga. I lost 20 pounds in six weeks, and I felt fabulous.
As I was getting thinner, however, the subscribers to the body-positivity movement weren’t so thrilled for me: They were telling me that I should have just loved my body the way it was. It was taboo for me to say I wanted to lose weight, even though it was for health reasons. I felt guilty because I preached self-confidence to my girlfriends, but I wanted to lose weight too.
In the end, doesn’t loving your body mean making sure that it stays healthy and fit in order to live a long, full life? I couldn’t love my body the way it was because, at my heaviest, my body got winded just walking up a flight of stairs and was giving me chronic joint and hip pain. The medical problems had stacked up, and I had felt like my body was failing me at the ripe old age of 21.
My weight fluctuated for the next two and a half years. I was generally within a 10-pound range and no longer had to worry about prediabetes but was still medically overweight. With three 5Ks under my belt, I wondered why I still wasn’t at a size where I’d feel comfortable wearing a bikini or a crop top.
I tried changing my exercise routine and started attending Zumba, Spin, and Pilates classes. But for every class I attended, I was taking one step forward and two steps back—with a junk-heavy diet, my bad-eating habits caught up with me and started making me violently ill. I was running to the bathroom, sick with extreme abdominal pain after every meal.
After multiple blood tests, X-rays, and procedures, I was diagnosed with IBS-D. The years of poor nutrition had taken a toll on my digestive enzymes, and I was in desperate need of more than a new exercise regimen.
The only distinction that matters to me now is healthy or unhealthy.
In September 2017, I realized that the only way my body was going to change internally and externally was if I genuinely followed the most important part of my doctor’s advice and really changed my diet. I jump-started this lifestyle change by cutting out gluten, dairy, processed foods, sugar, and alcohol for a month.
At first, I struggled with these limitations, but I made a commitment to see it through. I continued my exercise routine, but became stricter about it—instead of working out twice a week, I buckled down and did daily workouts. I lost 10 pounds in that initial month and then another 10 in the following weeks.
I haven’t eaten fast food since my weight loss was 80 percent diet and 20 percent working out—and I learned that in the end, you just can’t out-exercise a bad diet. I was finally feeling genuinely better—for years, I had been focusing all my energy on getting skinny rather than being healthy, and the result was that I just got sick.
But now I go up and down stairs all day at my job and don’t need to use my inhaler. I have energy that lasts the whole day. I rarely have pain from my back injury. I don’t compare my body to anyone else’s to determine if I’m “fat” or “skinny.” I’ve tried to eradicate those words from my vocabulary. The only distinction that matters to me now is healthy or unhealthy.
Being body-positive means different things for everyone. Being heavy doesn’t necessarily mean being unhealthy, but for me, my weight contributed to a slew of medical problems. My image positivity is a result of my good health.
Since that day at my doctor’s office four years ago, I’ve lost 50 pounds, and I’m proud that I’ve earned my physical health. Even though I’ve struggled with my body image, I’m comfortable and confident now because I know that I’m doing the most for it. I’ve heard that nothing tastes as good as skinny feels—but I’ve found that really, nothing’s as good as healthy feels.
Laura DePinho is a freelance writer living in NYC. Follow her on Instagram @lauradepinho.